R.E.M. emerged from Athens, Georgia, part of a fertile scene that also produced The B-52s, Pylon, and Matthew Sweet. They played their first gig in 1980 when the four members were attending the University of Georgia. Drummer Bill Berry and bassist Mike Mills had been playing in bands together since high school. Vocalist Michael Stipe shopped at the record store where guitarist Peter Buck worked and would buy the records that Buck had been saving for himself.
R.E.M. began their career as a folk–flavoured post-punk band, with cryptic albums that enjoyed a cult following. Early albums like 1983’s Murmur and 1984’s Reckoning were staples of the college-rock scene. Over the course of the 1980s, R.E.M. beefed up their sound, started to enjoy radio airplay, and signed to a major label. By the early 1990s R.E.M. were one of the biggest bands in the world – the acoustic pop of Out Of Time, the sombre Automatic for the People, and the glam of Monster were all huge-sellers as alternative rock became the mainstream.
R.E.M. endured a medically eventful 1995 tour in support of Monster, and drummer Bill Berry departed the band after 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi. R.E.M. soldiered on until 2011’s Collapse Into Now, but were arguably never the same after Berry left – Buck, Mills, and Berry were all contributed to writing the band’s music, and Berry was a key contributor to songs like ‘Can’t Get There From Here’ and ‘Everybody Hurts’. The band’s legacy has perhaps been clouded by their 21st-century work, but their back-catalogue is still very strong – Steve Wynn of Dream Syndicate later said, “R.E.M. was first to show us you can be big and still be cool.”
In hindsight, the band’s fifteen albums divide neatly into three groups – five albums for indie label IRS in the 1980s, their first five albums for Warner Brothers from 1988-1996 that mark their commercial high point, and the five post-Bill Berry albums as the band soldiered on without their founding drummer. Here are their R.E.M.’s studio albums ranked from worst to best.
R.E.M.’s Albums Ranked
#15 – Around the Sun
Around the Sun isn’t a controversial pick as R.E.M.’s worst album – like Reveal it sounds overly fussy and sterile. Buck later admitted that “it sounds like what it is, a bunch of people that are so bored with the material that they can’t stand it anymore.” Even at their worst, R.E.M. are still writing worthwhile material like ‘Leaving New York’, but overall Around The Sun is a tough slog.
#14 – Reveal
R.E.M. are overwhelmed by 21st-century recording technology on Reveal, making a record that sounds over-laboured and sterile. Buck described the album as combining Jimmy Webb, Glen Campbell, and The Beach Boys, but it’s overlong and bogged down in ProTools. It does have its moments – ‘All the Way to Reno (You’re Gonna Be a Star)’ captures the ‘Wichita Lineman’ vibe the band were aiming for, and ‘I’ll Take The Rain’ is a gorgeous ballad.
#13 – Monster
R.E.M. surprised fans in 1994 with an album of glammed-up grunge songs. It was the antithesis of Automatic for the People and became a used bin staple. The singles are great, especially ‘What’s The Frequency Kenneth?’ and ‘Bang and Blame’. On the other hand it lacks stylistic variation and ‘Strange Currencies’ is a blatant rewrite of ‘Everybody Hurts’.
#12 – Out of Time
R.E.M. had dabbled with acoustic tracks on Green, writing songs on mandolin and organ. On Out of Time they commit to the approach, and the album made them into mega-stars. R.E.M. disenfranchised some long-term fans with the bright and bouncy single ‘Shiny Happy People’, with The B-52s’ Kate Pierson on backing vocals. I enjoy it, but it’s symptomatic of the album’s overall lack of depth and edge. Lead single ‘Losing My Religion’, with Buck on mandolin, is one of the band’s best songs.
#11 – Collapse Into Now
When they recorded Collapse Into Now, R.E.M. had already decided that it would be their final album. Stipe sounds like a load has been lifted from his shoulders on fun numbers like ‘Mine Smell Like Honey’. It’s a little light on great songs, but the stylistic range from rockers to acoustic tracks that recall Out of Time makes it an effective career summary.
#10 – Green
Inevitably as their sales and popularity grew, R.E.M. signed with a major label, but their first album for Warner Brothers is a mixed bag. They’re aiming for pop hits more overtly than before, with songs like ‘Stand’ and ‘Pop Song 89’, and the results are mixed. They dabble with acoustic textures, foreshadowing their early 1990s phase, but they’re not as strong as what was to come. Green is unfocused, but it features some of the band’s very best work – ‘Orange Crush’ is a well-loved hit, while ‘World Leader Pretend’ and ‘I Remember California’ are strong deep cuts.
#9 – Document
R.E.M.’s final album for IRS provided their commercial breakthrough – ‘The One I Love’ reached the US top 10, a rare feat for an indie band. Producer Scott Litt would continue with the band over their most commercially successful period, and he provides a more muscular sound. Document is the most uneven of R.E.M.’s independent albums, however – there’s filler like the cover of Wire’s ‘Strange’, and it ends limply with tracks like ‘King of Birds’. There are still signature singles like ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)’ and deep cuts like ‘Disturbance at the Heron House’.
#8 – Up
R.E.M.’s first album without Bill Berry is different from anything they’d produced previously. Mills is often on keyboards and Buck on bass, and songs like the electronica of ‘Airportman’ and the lush piano balladry of ‘At My Most Beautiful’ stake out new territory for R.E.M. . The lead single ‘Daysleeper’ is more familiar sounding, based around Buck’s guitar, and Up is often excellent albeit overlong.
#7 – Accelerate
After a pair of lacklustre albums, R.E.M. rebounded with the back-to-basics approach of Accelerate. With Bill Rieflin filling in on drums they feel like a band again, playing rock songs that utilise Buck’s guitar and Mills’ chunky and melodic basslines. The tight 34-minute running time is appreciated after some overlong records, with convincing rockers like ‘Living Well Is The Best Revenge’ and ‘Supernatural Superserious’.
#6 – Fables of the Reconstruction
R.E.M.’s third album reflects the band’s roots, a concept album about residents of the American South like ‘Old Man Kensey’ and ‘Wendell Gee’. The record’s produced by Joe Boyd, famous for his work in the 1960s with folk-rock acts like Nick Drake and Fairport Convention. But rather than accentuate R.E.M.’s folk-rock tendencies, Fables of the Reconstruction widens their stylistic range. Opener ‘Feeling Gravity’s Pull’ is atmospheric while songs like ‘Driver 8’ and ‘Can’t Get There From Here’ are punchy and accessible.
#5 – New Adventures in Hi-Fi
New Adventures In Hi-Fi was largely recorded during soundchecks on a horrific tour, during which drummer Bill Berry nearly died from a brain aneurysm and Michael Stipe and Mike Mills were both hospitalised. At 65 minutes there’s filler, but this is exactly the kind of album that dedicated fans will enjoy wading through, and in spite of, or perhaps because of, its sprawling nature New Adventures In Hi-Fi is among the group’s best records. Patti Smith guests on ‘E-Bow the Letter’ while the car alarm effect that anchors the lengthy ‘Leave’ is excellent.
#4 – Reckoning
The dourness of Murmur was lightened for R.E.M.’s second album, with a more conventional college rock sound. Reckoning is punchier than previously, but Stipe’s vocals are still low in the mix; he’s credited as the “lead vocal instrument”. Opening track ‘Harborcoat’ demonstrates the potential of this micro-era of R.E.M., marrying an arrangement that’s more propulsive than anything on Murmur, opening with a Bill Berry fill, to a pretty folk-rock melody that would have been right at home on that album.
#3 – Automatic for the People
“Today I need something more substant, more substantial” sings Michael Stipe on Automatic for the People‘s ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite’. And R.E.M. deliver with Automatic for the People, a vast improvement from the fun but shallow Out of Time. While the two albums share an acoustic sensibility, Automatic for the People has a sincere and poignant core, and it’s a much more affecting album. An unlikely collaborator is Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, who contributes some gorgeous string parts, particularly to the slow-burning opener ‘Drive’.
#2 – Murmur
The title Murmur refers to Michael Stipe’s virtual incomprehensibility on R.E.M.’s debut album. Murmur is an excellent start for the band’s career; the group already had their entire sound worked out, and they’d only become more mainstream and less interesting. The key R.E.M. elements are recognisable on Murmur; Michael Stipe’s arty and cryptic lyrics, Peter Buck’s jangly guitars and Mike Mill’s harmonies are all present. ‘Radio Free Europe’ was the band’s first minor hit, but there are a ton of great tracks like the piano-laced ‘Shaking Through’, the cryptic indie of ‘Pilgrimage’, and the closing anthem ‘West of the Fields’.
I didn’t include the 1982 EP Chronic Town on this album countdown, but if you enjoy Murmur it’s well worth hearing.
#1 – Lifes Rich Pageant
R.E.M. took a step toward the mainstream with Lifes Rich Pageant, enlisting John Mellencamp’s producer, who gave them a more commercial and rock-oriented sound, with Stipe’s vocals higher in the mix. Although R.E.M. lose some mystique in the process, the more direct sound is helpful, resulting in my favourite R.E.M. album. It’s packed with overlooked classics – the opening ‘Begin the Begin’, the lovely guitar solo on ‘Flowers of Guatemala’, and the hard-hitting chorus of ‘Cuyahoga’.
Did I leave out your personal favourite R.E.M. album? Am I crazy to neglect Document? Is Out of Time brilliantly tuneful, or a collection of fluffy, throwaway pop songs? What’s your R.E.M. top 5?